This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
Back in an era where it was much harder to watch “classic” films, I sought out Wild Strawberries. Ingmar Bergman is one of those names you know even before you spend any time with serious film, but I had no idea what I was going to see. I specifically didn’t look up anything, I just knew it was a movie I was “supposed to” see, so I saw it. I didn’t really get it. I didn’t like it or dislike it, it just washed over me and I went on to other things.
There’s a lot that’s been written about how you’re supposed to watch movies. You need to know what you’re doing, which seems a little crazy to say but is definitely true. I didn’t know, then, and I’m not sure I do now, but I’m at least closer to it than then. David Lynch famously gave a profane quote about watching movies on your phone and called it “such a sadness.” I watched Wild Strawberries on a DVD I got in the mail, which must sound like a very silly thing to do to someone who isn’t a very specific age. I’ve watched a few other Bergman films since then, but only recently did I tackle Persona, the top of the mountain, and not on a phone.
The experience of Persona reminded me of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey as a teenager. I felt like it was a joke, somehow, and that everyone kept telling people it was a classic because they wanted other people to have to deal with it because they’d had to sit through it. I liked a lot of it, but some of the more expressionistic stuff felt impenetrable, as though it wasn’t just that I didn’t get it but that there wasn’t something to get. It’s since become one of my favorite films. You don’t owe any movie that level of work, but as Lynch says, it’s a sadness if you aren’t willing to try, given the assumption that the movie is worth it.
Persona reminded me of that experience because the opening is the most daring thing I’ve ever seen put to camera. A series of horrific images mixes with a projector showing a film. We see a spider walking and we see nails being driven into hands. We see brutality even beyond that and we are shocked, immediately, before we even see a character. The character we do see, a boy, isn’t identified until much later and we only see that he sees other people before we get anything that could pass for narrative.
This is one of the greatest films of all time and there’s consensus, such as it is possible for that to happen, beyond reasonable doubt. If you don’t like Persona, the math suggests that you must be wrong, which is always a weird place to approach a film. I was horrified, immediately, but you’re supposed to feel that way. You’re supposed to be disoriented, maybe even frustrated, and to wonder what the point of this is. That’s a very weird way to start one of the greatest films of all time.
This is the inspiration for the elements of the story in Fight Club where a projectionist cuts together horrific things to shock audiences. There’s a direct reference in Fight Club to one of the images in Persona, and the techniques in the film further this reference. The story even owes a really strong nod, though that’s more complicated. It’s surely not only the relationship to Fight Club that does this, but the only negative thing anyone can find to say about Persona is that it is a dreaded “pretentious” movie.
That word doesn’t really mean anything anymore when you’re talking about a movie. It’s just a stand-in for “I don’t like it.” It’s the thing you accuse 2001 of when you’re a teenager. It’s looking at something you don’t get and, yes, demanding that there is no there there. As you age out of that you open yourself up to realizing that it’s possible, and even likely, that the problem lies with you.
Persona demands this immediately. The opening is horrific, but it’s a test. The viewer has to be prepared to be shocked and frightened by things they are already frightened by, but this is all to get you in the mood. It’s for much better minds than me to explain, but it inarguably prepares you to see something that’s just a little off. When we join the narrative and it’s so straightforward, it feels like a relief.
A nurse, Alma, is assigned to take care of a woman, Elisabet. The patient has opted to no longer speak or move, but the hospital staff have deduced this is not an actual illness, but a choice. An especially intense doctor suggests they retire to the seaside and recoup. The two women go to the sea and we see the contrast between the two women play out over and over. Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann were cast partially because they look similar, allowing for visual tricks where the two appear to become one another and to create a sense that these two belong in this setting.
It’s all these two women. No one else is on screen for more than a few minutes or a few lines. This is almost entirely a mute part from Ullmann and a nonstop ramble, sometimes confident and sometimes nervous, from Andersson. It’s incredible and gripping, partially horrific because of how we got here but partially because of the creeping hope that Ullmann will speak. Her armor cracks as Andersson challenges her motives and it provides space to discuss themes in a way that other films would struggle to do naturally.
This is all part of what makes Persona one of the most talked about movies of all time. I couldn’t believe it, over and over, and I’m still not sure I do. It can be frustrating to see a movie where the given reality at any moment might be up for debate, but that shifting here suggests that maybe it never happens. Maybe this is all as it seems, which might even be worse.
Andersson gives one of the all-time monologue performances during a graphic description of a surprising day from her youth. If you somehow haven’t seen it but plan to, I won’t give the game away, but it is iconic for a reason. It briefly suggests these two might connect, but their paths are headed towards an entirely different thing. The tension comes from Elisabet’s silence, but also from the impact the silence has on the talkative Alma.
During high points of tension, Bergman cuts away to show the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in South Vietnam and a famous photograph of the Warsaw Uprising. These are some of the most significant and memorable acts of resistance in modern history, and here they are meant to ratchet up the intensity of what the characters are experiencing. Elisabet is said to be silent because it’s all too much. Her doctor hypothesizes this is a response that allows her to take no action and risk no mistakes. Is this true? Is it a simplification? Does it matter?
The performances are world-class, but the mystery of why it’s happening goes so much deeper than asking why one will not speak. The visual effects are one thing and it’s fair if a cutaway to a horrific world event or an unexpected frame skip works for you or not, but you cannot deny what you’re seeing. It’s important to see movies like this, if only to recognize when they get cribbed down the line. Bergman made something undeniable that will haunt people forever, but he also had that Velvet Underground kind of influence on filmmakers. People saw this and started a band, so to speak, and it won’t leave you for a very long time after you see it.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. I liked PlayTime fine, but Persona is a masterpiece. I thought PlayTime was ambitious and surprising, but especially for the last hour I was checking my watch a lot. The restaurant scene is extremely long and doesn’t necessarily build on the premise, though I think the first half of PlayTime ranks among the best things I’ve ever seen.
Is it the best movie of all time? Yes, so far. I will dethrone In the Mood for Love, unexpectedly, for Bergman’s horrific look at what it actually means to be you. I intended to write mostly about how Persona is an inspiration for Mulholland Drive, which is not really a new idea or anything, but I left it out entirely because I ran out of space. I just loved it, not because I liked the experience, but because I was so surprised. It’s a really nice feeling to be surprised by what a movie can do, even if that surprise isn’t a good one. This is one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen, but by that I mean that you owe it to yourself to scale the mountain.
You can watch Persona on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.